V enice, with its narrow passageways, crumbling facades and glistening canals, is an endlessly beautiful and surprising city. It is also a centre for visual culture, housing treasures in its grand museums and tucked-away churches, and welcoming tens of thousands of visitors to its sprawling biennials and annual festivals. Now is the perfect time to visit, with the latest edition of the Biennale Arte, the oldest and most prestigious event of its type in the world, on until 24 November. In September, it is joined by the 76th edition of the glamourous Venice International Film Festival – also the longest running of its kind – where stars from Hollywood and beyond will gather to celebrate all-things cinema through a mix of premieres, talks, workshops and more.
This is just a snippet of what’s on offer in La Serenissima in 2019, and while it is all but impossible to offer a comprehensive view, we have picked out some highlights that are not to be missed.
What to see
From Titian to Rubens. Masterpieces from Antwerp and other Flemish Collections, Palazzo Ducale, 5 September–1 March 2020
Venice has been home to many great artists over the centuries, but perhaps none more famous than Tintoretto and Titian. It is no small deal, then, that works by these two painters will make a rare return to the city in a show at the Palazzo Ducale. There are around 80 loans from Flemish museums and private collections, including Tintoretto’s The Angel Foretelling Saint Catherine of Alexandria of Her Martyrdom, 1560–70 and Titian’s Portrait of a Lady and her Daughter, circa 1550 – curator Ben Van Beneden describes the “tender representation of the relationship between a mother and daughter” in the latter as “simply unmatched.” Also included are masterpieces by Rubens (the show is organised together with the Rubenshuis in Antwerp) and Van Dyck.
Baselitz-Academy, Gallerie dell’Accademia, 8 May–8 September
Gallerie dell’Accademia, the prestigious home of pre-19th century Venetian art, has recently ventured into the realm of contemporary art. This year it is hosting its first exhibition dedicated to a living artist. The man in question is German artist Georg Baselitz, who has spent six decades capturing life in post-war Germany while drawing on a variety of influences – from African sculpture to Abstract Expressionism. Included among the exhibits is Arrival, 2018, one of the artist’s trademark upside-down paintings, and the woodblock print Large Head, from 1966. Works that touch on his relationship with Italy and its academic tradition are also on display.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
The American heiress Peggy Guggenheim was a mover and shaker of the Venice art scene from the moment she moved there in 1948, and a great patron of contemporary Italian art. Today her importance to the city is retained within her former home – now known as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It is filled with Guggenheim’s bold collection, which merges folk art with work by modernists including Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti. There are also photographs depicting her eccentric home decor (Alexander Calder’s silver bedstead can be found hanging in her former bedroom), and a sculpture garden containing her grave. An exhibition opening there in September will explore her Venetian life in more detail.
"It is filled with Guggenheim’s bold collection, which merges folk art with work by modernists including Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti"
Ca’ Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art
The International Gallery of Modern Art is housed in an exquisite Baroque palace on the Grand Canal. Spend the morning discovering the museum's permanent collection, which focuses primarily on art from the 19th and 20th centuries, including works by Giacomo Balla, Gustav Klimt and Auguste Rodin.
On view until 22 September is Arshile Gorky 1904-1948, the first exhibition in Italy dedicated to the Armenian-American artist. Gorky spent 20 years merging his traumatic experiences of the Armenian Genocide, his love of nature, and the modern experimentation of contemporaries in paint. This show traces Gorky’s stylistic development through 80 works. Exhibits range from landscapes influenced by Cezanne to later canvases such as Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944, which led to him being coined as a forerunner to Abstract Expressionism.
Venice is renowned for the cultural foundations that lie hidden among its narrow streets. Their activities are the motor to many of the city’s cultural activities and at the head of them all is the earliest example in Italy, the Fondazione Cini. The Cini spreads over nearly all of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, home to the exceptionally beautiful monastery with Palladian refectory. The light-filled church alone would be worth a visit – built to a plan by Palladio and with paintings by Tintoretto it is one of the ecclesiastical highlights of Venice (it has some pretty stiff competition and a visit to the Friari might be a cliche, but it is well worth it for Titian’s masterpieces). What distinguishes a trip to the Fondazione Cini is the exhibition space to the side of the church, where the foundation is able to show exceptional presentations of contemporary art that explore the legacy of Venice.
Edmund De Waal, psalm, Jewish Museum/Ateneo Veneto, 7 May–29 September
British ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal is somewhat obsessed with porcelain as a medium for exploring broader concepts, and his latest exhibition in Venice remains true to form. psalm is a two-part installation across two sites: the first is at a 16th-century synagogue in the Jewish ghetto district, featuring 11 new vitrines made out of porcelain, marble and gold; the second inhabits the luxurious Ateneo Veneto and contains what the artist has described as the largest ever porcelain library. “[This project] is about exile; what it means to have to move to another country, to speak another language,” de Waal says.
Pittura/panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992, Palazzo Grimani, Until 17 November
Helen Frankenthaler pioneered a whole new way of art-making in the 1950s with her “soak-stain” technique, which comprised dripping paint onto a canvas and letting it sink in. These innovations and more are celebrated in an exhibition at the Palazzo Grimani, a Renaissance building in the Castello district. The 14 paintings on show cover 40 years and encapsulate her singular grasp of space in painting – as seen in the patches of blue, green, red and orange deftly arranged over white canvas in Italian Beach, 1960.
"The 14 paintings encapsulate Helen Frankenthaler's singular grasp of space in painting"
The Venice Film Festival is as lauded as it is old, making up the “Big Three” together with the Berlinale and the Festival de Cannes. What sets it apart is an old-school glamour unique to Venice, and in recent years it has played a powerful role in shaping Oscar nominations, with the likes of Gravity and La La Land having premiered there. This year's programme includes the DC Comics’ film Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman’s arch-nemesis, and Ad Astra, a sci-fi film featuring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching the solar system for his father. Also look out for Final Cut, a workshop dedicated to films from Africa and the Middle East.
Running for more than a century, the Venice Biennale is the high point in the art world calendar, bringing together a mix of professionals and members of the public to place their fingers firmly on the pulse of contemporary art. Its main show is split between the national pavilions of the Giardini and the cavernous Arsenale, while in recent decades festivities have continued to expand to include a vast number of “off-site” pavilions too. The curator of the 58th exhibition, titled May We Live in Interesting Times, is Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery. Expect one of the most thoughtful Biennales in recent years, as politically driven as it is aesthetically engaging.
"Expect one of the most thoughtful Biennales in recent years, as politically driven as it is aesthetically engaging"
Where to stay
Belmond Hotel Cipriani
Few hotels in Europe offer the kind of exclusivity found at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani, a location coveted by artists and aristocrats alike for more than 60 years. Located on Giudecca island, it offers views of the Doge’s Palace and church of St Giorgio across the lagoon, while onsite an Olympic-style swimming pool and Michelin-star fine dining ensure that guests can enjoy a taste of modernity amidst classic Venetian grandeur. Those looking for added exclusivity can hire the rooftop for a party featuring a 360-degree panorama of the city.
Where to drink
Located in a hidden courtyard in the busy Rialto area, the wine bar I Rusteghi is the perfect oasis away from Venice’s hustle and bustle. It serves up idiosyncratic local food but is best known for its great selection of wines; the ideal spot for a casual drink or aperitif.
Cantine del Vino già Schiavi
A charming wine shop that serves some of the best chicchetti (small traditional Venetian snacks) in the city. It offers some great wines, many local, within a space fittingly stacked floor to ceiling with bottles. A hot favourite among Venetians.
Where to eat
Riviera in the Zattere
The Riviera in the Zattere offers a tantalising combination of great food, top-class service and beautiful views over the lagoon. You can watch the sun go down from the pier as you enjoy dishes ranging from red mullet to pigeon breast, best served as part of superb seven-course tasting menus. The wine pairings are a real treat, too – blending international and local Venetian options of the finest quality.
Il Ridotto earned a Michelin star in 2013, and one visit to this intimate, sophisticated restaurant will make it clear why. Featuring just nine tables, its exposed brick interior and simple but refined decor provides a romantic atmosphere, while its seasonal menu is filled with the best fresh ingredients. Creative takes on traditional dishes – including the desserts – are a welcome touch, as are the beautiful Murano water glasses.
"Featuring just nine tables, Il Ridotto's exposed brick interior and simple but refined decor provides a romantic atmosphere"
Those looking for a meat-free meal would do well to head over to La Zucca, which offers some of the best vegetarian and vegan dining in Venice (as well as plenty of excellent meat options too). Lasagne with artichoke and zucchini flowers, a signature savoury pumpkin flan and tagliatelle with lamb ragu have all populated the menu – as have delicious desserts such as limoncello mousse. Be sure to book ahead as it can get very busy in high-season.